Sarah Kerr sits in her small Courtenay apartment that she has decorated in a way that fuels her mind and spirit. For the past five years, she has been undergoing treatments for Stage IV colon cancer. Photo by Jolene Rudisuela

Alternative paths to health: How one Vancouver Island woman is taking control of her cancer treatments

Many Canadians try at least one form of complementary treatment during their cancer journey

Sarah Kerr has been through over 60 rounds of chemotherapy in the past five years. She says this is more than most cancer patients endure in a lifetime.

Five years ago, nearly to the day, Kerr was diagnosed with colon cancer.

She had been to the doctor months previously about a pain in her lower back, but at the time doctors shrugged it off, attributing it to her weight. But after six months of the pain progressively getting worse, they got down to the root of the problem – stage IV colon cancer, which had already metastasized to her sacrum.

While cancer treatments have saved Kerr’s life, she says they have also damaged her body. And like many who feel powerless throughout their journeys with cancer, Kerr has turned to alternative forms of treatment along with her chemo as a way of connecting with her body and regaining control over her health and her life.

“This idea of cancer as a battle is something that I don’t believe in,” she said. “Over the years, I see that it’s not a battle to be won because cancer always wins somehow. But what makes it so that the person wins is to listen to your body and listen to your spirit and listen to what feels right.”

***

When her doctor gave the cancer diagnosis, Kerr just remembers feeling shocked. The prognosis wasn’t good.

“My doctor came in and just said, ‘put your affairs in order,’” said Kerr. “That was pretty shocking to not think I even had a fighting chance.”

Kerr has outlived expectations, but the cancer is persistent. There was a time that she thought she may have been in remission, but the next scan showed the cancer was still there. Every two weeks, she goes to the Courtenay hospital for chemotherapy, but after five years, the treatment is not working to reduce the cancer as it used to be.

“The chemo is working to some extent, but I would say it’s working to keep me alive, but it’s not reducing the cancer anymore,” she said.

Kerr has been trying various complementary treatments for years, hoping to regain some control over her health.

She has taken mistletoe injections, practiced Qi Gong – a Chinese exercise combining Tai Chi, yoga and meditation – and an assortment of different pills with varying degrees of success. In the past three months, she has begun taking Vitamin C intravenously.

Every week at a naturopathic clinic in Royston, Kerr receives 25 grams of liquid through an IV.

While years of cancer treatments have taken their toll on her body, Kerr says the Vitamin C treatments have given her more energy, improved her immune system, made her feel more in balance and her body feels like it did eight years ago, before the pain in her back.

And though her oncologist wouldn’t necessarily prescribe Vitamin C IV therapy, even she says it won’t cause any harm. The oncologist reasoned that even if it doesn’t work against the cancer, it can’t hurt to have more Vitamin C in your system.

“The chemo’s done some work for me and I would just like to give it some help,” said Kerr.

But her doctors haven’t always been so accepting of her choice to use alternative medicine alongside her regular chemo treatments. Many forms of treatments do not have scientific evidence that proves they work, and some could potentially counteract the work of the chemotherapy.

That is why Kerr believes in listening to her body and understanding what improves her physical and mental health.

“It is really hard to walk the line between the conventional system and the naturopathic system, and I find that the conventional system really has a distrust,” she said. “I did have one doctor say, ‘At some point you’re gonna have to figure out whether you’re with us or against us,’ and I was like, it’s not a war.

“As patients in the cancer system, we really give up our control to the oncologists and the medical system and it’s very depleting, and to be able to have something I can do that I can see is helping me is beneficial to my spirit and my morale.”

***

While Kerr believes she has seen huge improvements in her health through these complementary treatments – especially Vitamin C injections – they are expensive. A single Vitamin C IV session costs $200, and since she goes for it every week, it adds up fast.

Many cancer patients, desperate to see improvement in their health, are likely to try a form of complementary therapy to reduce the effects of chemotherapy, such as nausea, and improve their overall health.

According to the Canadian Cancer Society, many cancer patients have tried at least one form of complementary health approaches as part of their treatment.

“I see the people that are in with me at the [cancer] clinic and many of them have spent $10,000 or more on their treatments,” she said. “To be able to do these alternative treatments are incredibly costly, but then just being a person with cancer is incredibly costly, just by itself.”

Kerr has been unable to work throughout her cancer journey and has been living off income support. She is lucky to have additional support from her family, but she says it is getting to the point where she doesn’t want to rely on their help anymore.

However, she is not willing to give up on a treatment that she feels has improved her quality of life.

“It’s really hard to treat metastatic cancer in bones. It’s sort of like trying to wash something out of a stone,” she said. “I know that I’m worth it and I know that I’m not doing this for some kind of game. It’s really to be able to keep living my life.”

***

A GoFundMe has been set up to help fund Kerr’s treatments: https://bit.ly/2X8LpEs

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